The Prospector

J.M.G. Le Clézio’s novel The Prospector is a tale told in shimmering prose about a quest for buried treasure. Set on the remote island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, a place of paradisal beauty, the story is based on the life of Le Clézio’s French grandfather, who lived there at the turn of the last century.

The French-born Le Clézio, who won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, has said that he regards Mauritius as his true ancestral home, and in this novel he depicts it as an Eden destroyed by colonizers — British, Dutch, and his own ancestors, the French — who began arriving there in the 16th century.

Le Clézio tells the story in the form of a diary. Alexis L’Etang and his sister, Laure, live an idyllic life of privilege with their French parents on a plantation in the region of Boucan. The two children wander the beaches and mountains, unfettered by civilization, exploring the island’s flora and fauna and at night charting with their father the constellations that sweep across the skies.

But it is the sea that dominates their lives, and Le Clézio is especially adept in his gorgeous descriptions of a child’s perceptions of the natural world: “I thought of the sea as human,” he writes in the voice of Alexis, “and in the dark, all senses were alert, the better to hear her arrival, the better to receive her. The giant waves leapt over the reefs and then tumbled into the lagoon; the noise made the air and earth vibrate like a boiler. I heard her, she moved, and she breathed.”

The children’s father hopes to bring electricity to the island and thus to make his fortune. He is also obsessed with finding the buried treasure of an Unknown Corsair and spends his days poring over the Corsair’s mysterious maps in an effort to locate the gold. But his dreams are ruined when a cyclone destroys much of the island. He is forced into bankruptcy; gradually the family lands are cleared and its mansion leveled by the narrator’s uncle, who plants sugarcane fields and exploits the island’s black labor.

When Alexis’s father dies, Alexis takes up his quest in an effort to restore his patrimony. With the Corsair’s map in hand, he journeys to the nearby island of Rodrigues and hacks through rock and earth in a desperate attempt to find the gold. His life is saved by a beautiful, copper-skinned native girl named Ouma, a descendent in part of African slaves that French settlers brought to the islands in the 18th century to farm the land. Wielding her harpoon, Ouma teaches Alex how to survive in the remote place.

All this is in the tradition of classic novels such as Robinson Crusoe and Green Mansions, in which the European intruder in a primitive place is rescued by a native who enables his survival by teaching him the ways of nature. But The Prospector, unfortunately, occasionally becomes a giggle-inducing parody of the form. For instance, the hapless youth Alexis is always witnessing Ouma emerging from the water with her clothes stuck to her body. “She stands with one leg forward and her weight on her left hip; in her right hand she holds the reed harpoon with its ebony point, while her left hand rests on her right shoulder. Her damp clothes fall in shapes around her and she looks like an antique statue.” And he persists in describing her in animal terms: “She puts the fish on the bank and dives into the soft water, then sprays herself with water like an animal taking a bath.”

Alexis’s search for the gold is interrupted by World War I; he goes to Europe to fight at Ypres and on the Somme. At the war’s end, still possessed by his dream of the Corsair’s treasure, he returns to Mauritius and to Rodrigues. What he finds is, of course, far different from what he expected, and therein lies the moral of the tale.

The choice of Le Clézio as the winner of the Nobel was no doubt in keeping with the thinking of Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy which awards the prizes. In an interview with the Associated Press, Engdahl criticized American writers for their provincialism. (“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular,” he told a reporter. “They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.”) Le Clézio’s first novel, The Interrogation, published when he was 23, was a heavily French existential tale set in a city resembling Nice, near where he was born; it won him the prestigious Prix Théophraste Renaudot. But since then, he has taken as his subject the political and social consequences of colonialism, and his books have had an increasingly broad geographic range broad geographic range, branching out into regions as varied as North Africa in Desert (1980), Nigeria in Onitsha (1991), and Israel in Wandering Star (2004). He has also published several works on the Indians of Central American, including translations of Mayan texts.

The Prospector is only one of several books in which he has explored his ancestral ties to Mauritius and the legacy of his settler forebears. It is an enjoyable novel primarily for its evocation of that far away land, a place relatively unfamiliar to most Americans. “Mauritius was made first and then heaven,” Mark Twain wrote, “and that heaven was copied after Mauritius.”

Le Clézio said recently, “Writing for me is like traveling.” The Prospector finds its greatest strength in the thousands of words which evoke the Indian Ocean and its islands, their volcanoes, their clear waters, and their coral reefs teeming with exotic fish. In these passages, readers share the pleasures of the journey.